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Will GOP Try To Fast-Track Keystone XL Pipeline?

Now that Republicans have taken control of the Senate in addition to the House of Representatives, the attacks on the environment they've long advocated for will most likely rise to the top of the congressional agenda.

Current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will hand over his gavel to a Republican, most likely to current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in January, is a pipeline opponent and so far has blocked Republican efforts to force approval of the project.

One prominent item on their wish list is the Keystone XL pipeline to transport tar sands bitumen oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for export overseas. They've been open about their frustration that President Obama has so far heeded the mounting opposition and not allowed the project to move forward. But, with backing from the fossil fuel interests that fund their campaigns, Republican leadership will likely work to push Obama hard to get the Keystone XL done.

Current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will hand over his gavel to a Republican, most likely to current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in January, is a pipeline opponent and so far has blocked Republican efforts to force approval of the project.

"The election of several pro-Keystone Senators puts the passage of Keystone that much closer and shows energy projects like Keystone is a priority for our country," Ryan Bernstein, chief of staff for leading pipeline proponent Senator John Hoeven's (R-ND) chief of staff, told The Hill. "We will be working with Senator McConnell to get a vote on the floor shortly after the new Congress is seated."

In the past, the Republicans in Congress have tried to force the President to swallow unpalatable programs by attaching them to must-pass measures, such as increasing the debt ceiling.

According to National Geographic, "McConnell also has indicated that he may use similar budget tactics to compel a vote to approve the pipeline, which could then require Obama to decide whether to use his veto power."

The northern leg of the pipeline has been on hold during a federal review process, which has been ongoing for six years, with a near-approval in 2011. Keystone XL supporters insist that it's too long and it's been studied enough, while the State Department (which oversees the project because it crosses the U.S./Canadian border) says it's necessary due to the enormous number of comments it's received and ongoing legal challenges in Nebraska.

The president has said he would approve it only if it was clear it would not increase greenhouse gas emissions. Supporters say it won't do so because the tar sand oil, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, will be extracted, shipped and burned and pollute the environment whether Keystone XL is built or not. In addition, Calgary-based TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, has been pushing an alternative proposal to build a different pipeline across the continental to ports in eastern Canada.

Environmental groups hope the president won't succumb to pressure tactics and promise to intensify their opposition.

“If Obama approves the pipeline, it would be a real blow to his legacy on climate," Jamie Henn, director and cofounder of global grassroots environmental group 350.org told The Hill. "He has a lot to lose in terms of his outgoing reputation. We are itching to get back in the fight.”

He added on his Twitter feed:

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An alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, as seen here in Christmas Valley, South Lake Tahoe, California on Feb. 15, 2020. jcookfisher / CC BY 2.0

California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.

The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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